U-Meet The Athletes
By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent
Charles Barkley once famously said, “I am not a role model.” His point was that kids should look to their parents, their families, their teachers, and the people around them – not professional athletes. He asked a sportswriter, “A million guys can dunk a basketball in jail, should they be role models?”
But I remember my own competitive swimming experience, growing up in rural Michigan, driving 30 minutes each way to a swim team. My community had no pool. Every summer, my parents sent me to Michigan Swim Camp in Ann Arbor. The camp was five days. We meshed and mixed with various camp-goers from around the nation. We trained like college athletes. We lived like college athletes. We were basically little miniature collegiate athletes, 13, 14, 15-years old. Most importantly, we spent time with and interacted with the collegiate athletes, who were instantly all of our heroes. We spent the week emulating the routines and schedules of these college swimmers we desperately wanted to become. Such is the way of childhood and sports.
The experience was invaluable. And this isn’t an advertisement for Michigan Swim Camps – many swim camps around the nation provide this experience. Just this past week, I spoke with a swimmer who credits his swim camp experience as jump-starting his career.
This weekend, age group swimmers from Detroit will have roughly the same opportunity I had, just on a shorter time basis. The program, called U-Meet the Athlete, allows kids from the greater Detroit Metropolitan Area to meet collegiate swimmers from the University of Michigan, including swimmers from the 5th ranked men’s team in the country, for one day. A clinic. Interaction. Tips on nutrition. Advice on how to live a healthy lifestyle. It also raises money to help disadvantaged kids attend U-M’s KidSport Summer Camps.
“This event lets kids see what level they can reach by participating in the sport,” says Sonja McCoy, who is the Team Coordinator for the Detroit Tiger Sharks swim team and Project Detroit. “It gives them more drive because they can see, touch, and feel where they’re going.”
Throughout covering diversity and urban-swimming issues, I’ve noticed one common answer whenever I ask about the problems in attracting kids to the sport of swimming: Education. Educating parents. Educating kids. Communicating that swimming is a life skill. That competitive swimming can lead to college, or even a better lifestyle. I asked Sonja: “How important is it for Detroit swimmers to see that there is a future in the sport of competitive swimming at the collegiate level?”
She responded: “It’s extremely important. They don’t get to relate enough with people that look like them. So when they’re able to get that encouragement with people who are participating with the sport, it lets them know this can happen.”
Part of the education opportunities during my own experiences with swim camps wasn’t only the training. We learned about nutrition. We learned about recovery. We learned about complex carbohydrates, race strategy, pre-meet nutrition, how to balance a healthy lifestyle. I still remember a Michigan female swimmer emphasizing how important life balance was “outside of the pool.” She urged us to strive every practice, but also let us know that, sometimes, it’s OK to request a practice off in order to get other requirements in-order. Or if you were sick, it was OK to miss a practice or two. So, later, when I had a test or a cold and felt overwhelmed, I asked for an occasional practice off. After all, my role models in college did that. And they were fast.
This weekend’s camp will touch on subjects like nutrition and healthy lifestyle. It’s part of a teaching process that shows kids swimming isn’t only about winning. Swimming is a lifeskill. Swimming is an activity in which to participate throughout your life. Though competitive swimming can lead to college scholarships, national teams, Olympic Trials, and winner’s podiums, at its core, building a culture of swimming will ultimately decrease drowning rates and increase life enjoyment. This weekend’s program will touch on many of those subjects.
“A healthy lifestyle is eating right, making sure you drink water, eating vegetables, and understanding the food pyramid. With sports, you have to feed your body, fill your body, and you can’t perform if you don’t eat regularly,” Sonja McCoy says. “It helps so much when the things we teach them are supported and retold by people who they feel are doing well in the sport, or they respect. They will respect the U-M swimmers. If the Michigan swimmers tell them, it reinforces what we try to teach them.”
This is just a small step, part of a larger mission to increase the swimming culture in Detroit. Two summers ago, Project Detroit, a collaboration with USA Swimming designed to raise the level of swimming in the Detroit Metro Area, hosted an open water festival that Sonja says was a “huge success” for the kids. She said that kids had “the times of their lives” -- even after they were first hesitant to participate. They hope to hold another open water event this summer.
“The swimmers are asking, ‘Are we going to do it again?’” Sonja says. “They are hoping we can do it again.”
While this weekend’s U-Meet event isn’t part of Project Detroit, nearly 21 swimmers from Detroit are signed up to participate. It’s another action to help raise the level of competitive swimming in the area. It’s something that should be emulated by other college and age group teams with successful, elite, and potential role-models-in-waiting.
Because despite what Charles Barkley once said, while there may be a million people in jail who can dunk, I doubt there are a million people in jail who can swim a 200 butterfly or 400IM. I fundamentally believe competitive swimming teaches commitment, work ethic, and determination. And I believe that – in addition to coaches, teammates, parents, and competitors -- many of our swimmers can also be role models.
You have to see to believe. And this weekend, 21 more swimmers, hopefully, will do just that.